A Canadian comedian has been fined $15,000 by a human rights tribunal for unleashing a tirade of sexist and homophobic insults against a lesbian couple in the audience. But some are concerned this decision will limit the rights of performers.
According to the Vancouver Sun, Lorna Pardy filed a discrimination complaint against amateur comedian Guy Earle and Zesty's Restaurant owner Salam Ishmail after an incident at Zesty's in 2007. Earle, who was emceeing an open mike night, allegedly pointed out the table where Pardy and her partner were sitting as the "dyke table." Pardy says he then began to talk about her sex life in an explicit and shocking way, and when she booed him, came over to her table and "loomed over her, swearing and asking her derogatory questions." She threw a glass of water at him, and later, as she was leaving, she says he broke her sunglasses. Earle disputes the account, saying,
I never said anything hurtful to them or treated them badly after I got off the stage. I didn't say the things they said I said. They harassed me out the door to my car and out into the street.
But the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal sided with Pardy, ordering both Earle and Ishmail to pay her. The tribunal agreed that she'd been discriminated against based on gender and sexual orientation, and one member said Earle had "attacked Pardy's identity and dignity as a woman and a lesbian." Repugnant as Earle's actions sound, insults are often part of a comedy show, and some comics are concerned about how the decision will affect their industry. Says comedian Charles Demers,
This ruling is going to have an impact on professional comics who are now going to have a harder time starting up in new venues. They're going to have a harder time getting restaurants and bars to start up comedy nights because now [the restaurants and bars are] going to be worried that they're on the hook.
It's true that comics often get laughs by interacting with the audience, sometimes in ways that would be offensive if encountered in normal life. And many comedy shows feature explicit sexual humor. It's easy to see how a successful discrimination complaint might spook a lot of comics, who now have to scrutinize their material to make sure it's not too offensive. On the other hand, some comedians seem aware of a line between humor and abuse. Says Donovan Mahoney,
If you say something mean to somebody, it doesn't matter what format it's in, it's mean, and people see through that. Mean spirited stuff, I've seen people do it and I kind of cringe, because in my mind, comedy is very smart. A good comic is smart.
Comedians in British Columbia may have to be a little more careful in the wake of this decision to make a distinction between good-natured back-and-forth and biased attack. But if Mahoney's right, most of them should be smart enough to do so.